PROVIDENCE — On the Rhode Island Report podcast, Central Falls Mayor Maria Rivera recalled hearing from a family who was desperate to find a new apartment because their twin children had high levels of lead poisoning.
And Rhode Island PBS Weekly reporter Michelle San Miguel talked about the toll that lead poisoning is taking on the Central Falls family she profiled in a new episode, “Poisoned at Home.”
“This is heartbreaking just listening to this as the mayor,” Rivera said. “It was very concerning because I’m thinking about the future of these young babies — like what’s going to happen to them and all of the support that they need, and mom and dad the support that they needed, too?”
During the pandemic, home was seen as a haven from a potentially deadly virus. But for many children in Rhode Island, home posed a hazard, with poisonous lead lining the walls or flowing from the faucet. In 2020, the number of children poisoned by lead for the first time rose from 388 to 472 — a 22 percent increase that occurred even as 17 percent fewer children were being tested.
“Home should be right where you feel safest,” San Miguel said. “And it’s not hyperbole to say that children were being poisoned at home.”
Lead poisoning exacted its highest toll on children in Rhode Island’s four “core cities” — Central Falls, Pawtucket, Providence, and Woonsocket — places with older housing stock where 69 percent of the elevated lead levels were recorded and where 74 percent of the youth are children of color. Meanwhile, no cases of lead poisoning were detected in towns such as East Greenwich, Scituate, and Tiverton.
Rivera agreed that lead poisoning is a matter of environmental justice. “Low-income communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by the issue of lead — these are the communities that you have to be looking at and supporting and helping,” she said. “It’s our children who are being impacted by this.”
Even before the pandemic, hundreds of children were being poisoned by lead in Rhode Island, San Miguel said. “This is all preventable,” she said. “One of the things that we need to stress is that it does not cost tens of thousands of dollars to get a home to be lead safe.”
Rivera said Central Falls received a $250,000 grant from Rhode Island Housing to hire a full-time housing inspector and a lead poisoning prosecutor. “I am not the type of person who likes to penalize people without educating them first,” she said. “So the first thing we do is we send out a notice of violation, which we have worked with the attorney general’s office to draft.”
While lead poisoning often stems from lead paint, it can also result from lead water pipes. Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and Representative William W. O’Brien, both North Providence Democrats, have introduced legislation to replace lead pipes in the state’s water supply system. Advocates and legislators have called for Rhode Island to tap $500 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds or other federal money to replace the estimated 100,000 drinking water pipes in the state that still contain lead.
Rivera said it’s crucial that any program provide grants to cover the cost of replacing the lead pipes connecting to homes.
Last year, five groups filed a civil rights complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming the Providence Water Supply Board’s lead pipe replacement practices disproportionately increase the risk of lead exposure for Black, Latino, and Native American residents. The groups said the agency only offered free replacement of the lines that run from the water main to the curb, so homeowners were paying up to $4,500 to replace the pipes under their property.
“How do we work with the Senate and the House to be able to pass this legislation so that homeowners can get the pipes changed from their house to the road?” Rivera said. “I can’t think of an adult in a room that you’re going to have a conversation with and talk to them about how this is impacting our children and for them not to support something like this.”
To get the latest episode each week, follow Rhode Island Report podcast on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.